August 21 2017

A Post-Trump Islamic Studies Pedagogy?*

Elliott Bazzano, Le Moyne College

A protest sign reads "Bring Back Facts! Make America THINK again!"

Photo: Women’s March in Seneca Falls, NY, on Jan 21, 2017, by Lindy Glennon.

The Campus Mood on US Colleges and Universities the Day After

What happened to your college campus on November 9, 2016? Was it just another day or was the air thick with spoken and unspoken disruption? When I walked into my intro to Islam class, which had numerous people of color and students from diverse backgrounds—but still majority white—the faces of my students expressed a combination of fright, disappointment, and uncertainty. (As I’ve written about elsewhere, comedy can be one the most effective means for teaching difficult subjects, and this SNL skit illustrates a provocative sentiment about reactions to the election with attention to race relations in the United States.)

On the same day in my first-year seminar, a Syrian student, who had said close to nothing all semester, shared his thoughts: “Are we supposed to respect Donald Trump now? After he spent months and months disrespecting people like me? Why are we supposed to show him good manners when he’s unable to do the same for us?” The other students in the class were as taken aback as I was that this very reserved student had broken his silence with such a forceful articulation of his thoughts. What happened that edged a student from intense reservation into an active participant in class discussion? While Fox News and other outlets unabashedly ridiculed students like this, referring to them as crybabies and snowflakes, college professors throughout the country sought to rise to the occasion in support of their young learners as the complex and sensitive people they are.

As for my intro to Islam course on the day after the election, we were in our unit on mysticism, poised to turn our attention to the famous female saint, Rabi‘a of Basra (d. 801). Knowing that students likely faced any number of preoccupations, I began class by playing some Sufi music and inviting them to journal for five minutes. I then invited students to spend another ten to fifteen minutes sharing their reflections. (We had given attention to current events throughout the semester already, and I had given students extra credit for watching the presidential debates and identifying themes related to Islam and Muslims, so the course had already prepared them to offer informed perspectives on how the election weighed on our course topic.) We then spent the rest of the class reading Rumi poetry and trying to decode the sometimes obscure aphorisms of an Iraqi Muslim woman. In many ways, this day reflected what has become a foundation of my teaching philosophy: always maintain flexibility for unplanned dynamics but also continue the slow and steady approach that we began on day one of the semester.

The Challenge of Teaching Islam in 2017

Since Trump became a candidate in the 2016 US presidential race, educators have continued to reflect on how his political presence might influence pedagogy. Personally, I find myself in a familiar quagmire: to what extent do I focus on current events in my Islamic studies courses? If I wanted to, each class session could devote itself exclusively to political developments, domestic and international; this has been the case for years.

Trump’s incendiary comments, policy moves, and cabinet picks who malign Muslims, exacerbate this quagmire. Trump, for example, said that “Islam hates us” in a March 2016 interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. His cabinet picks and advisors have endorsed similarly disturbing, perhaps willfully ignorant, positions and rhetoric. In this essay, I will discuss some strategies, as well as challenges, for how Islamic studies teachers might react to a Trump administration in a classroom context, with special attention to building positive narratives in addition to challenging existing ones. Most Americans have never knowingly met a Muslim, and so beyond cheap headlines, college courses on Islam could be the first occasion for many students to have a more than superficial engagement with Islam and Muslims—which remains important for many reasons, including how to make sense of why the president would claim that the religion of 1.5 billion people “hate us.”

Recent legislation has included travel bans to the United States from nationals of Muslim-majority countries. In the language of The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani, “If we bombed you, we ban you.” Laptops that are too Muslim-y have also been banned from certain flights headed to the United States, and the idea has spread as the United Kingdom adopted a similar policy. (Incidentally, Royal Jordanian Air—one of the airlines affected by the Muslim-majority country laptop ban—immediately trolled the policy in a Tweet.) The latest US military attack on Syria could give even more occasion to use Islam-focused courses as lenses to understand international politics.

People who study religion quickly learn that any investigation into the human condition reveals both the beautiful and grotesque. As someone who teaches all of his classes in the core curriculum at a liberal arts institution, I increasingly see my pedagogical task as teaching skills for understanding the spectrum of the beautiful and grotesque, as this spectrum relates to religion and beyond. How can my teaching, I often ask myself, positively contribute to the lives of my students in a way that empowers them more than it overwhelms them, in a world where there is so much hurt and confusion?

Fortunately, many scholars of Islam remain positively engaged in public discourse and efforts toward bridge-building and political problem-solving on an ongoing basis. Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst wrote a blog post for the University of Vermont, “Trump 2016: The View from Islamic Studies,” in which she details the connections between Trump’s rhetoric, cabinet choices, and their consequences. Caleb Elfenbein, an author for the Wabash Center’s “Teaching Islam” blog, has contributed to an important project that maps anti-Muslim crimes in the United States. Also chilling is Mohammad Fadel’s article for The Islamic Monthly that details worst-case scenarios for Muslims under a Trump administration, including comparisons with Japanese internment camps. And most recently, professors from across institutions have complied a timely syllabus on the intersections of Islamophobia and racism. This is all to say that there are simply too many, individual as well as cumulative, momentous and worrisome news headlines to introduce to an undergraduate Islamic studies course while still covering other material in the course.

Are the Challenges (that) Different than Before?

Effective pedagogy includes understanding one’s context, including institutional goals, student demographics, and the current political landscape. An effective way, I find, to invite students to draw personally meaningful connections to course material is to always keep in mind popular symbols and ideas that bear, even indirectly, on what we study. The absurdity of mainstream media coverage of Islam can also offer some cathartic moments of laughter, which helps ease students into challenging discourses.

In terms of noteworthy contributions that Muslims make to American public life, we saw Linda Sarsour—a Palestinian American activist—lead organizing efforts for the Women’s March on Washington. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress (now in his sixth term), received the endorsement of Bernie Sanders for chair of the Democratic National Committee, and the funeral of Muhammad Ali in June 2016 attracted international media attention, including its full broadcast on Fox News. In a beautifully narrated but also depressing account, National Public Radio’s Asma Khaled details what it was like, as a Muslim woman, to cover Trump’s campaign during the election.

As Amir Hussain (2016) adroitly argues in his recent book, Muslims and the Making of America, we have much to learn about American cultural fabric by studying the role of Islam and Muslims in our history, even as it continues to unfold. In my capacity as host for New Books in Islamic Studies podcasts, I have interviewed a number of scholars—including Amir Hussain, Sophia Arjana, and Todd Green—about how current political affairs impact the lives of Muslims in the United States. I keep my students in mind as one audience for these interviews, and I have repeatedly assigned my students the interview I conducted with Todd Green on Islamophobia (which prospered in the American mainstream long before Trump reached the national spotlight).

The Good, the Bad, and the Mystical

Despite the many humanizing accounts about Muslims that my students study, these same students also tell me that they aren’t surprised to learn about the pervasive Islamophobia in the news cycle. But don’t some details shock them, even a little bit? In a 2015 Public Policy Poll, for example, about 30% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats supported bombing Agrabah—the fictional city from Disney’s Aladdin. Among Trump supporters: 41%. As I wrote in a previous blog post, students can use current political tensions, and how they respond to them, as a way to make sense of Sufi conceptions of spiritual growth. “Do I,” students might ask themselves, “harbor anything related to these views that I find so toxic and ignorant?”

I’m currently teaching “Islamic Mysticism” for the third time, and I’ve implicitly chosen in past iterations to focus less on current events than I do in my intro to Islam courses, or even in my courses on the Qur’an in which we explicitly explore contentious political topics. This time, however, I find myself taking closer stock during class time of political context, and not only because of the most recent presidential election. I think students likewise crave a balance between attention to (depressing) current events and engaging with aesthetics and intellectual discourse that don’t immediately relate to the latest fake news (or “alternative facts”?) on their social media feeds. In many ways, I don’t think students are equipped to understand the roots of Islamophobia without understanding the roots of Islamic traditions. I am learning that watching feature films, reading medieval allegories, requiring trips to mosques and Muslim student group meetings on campus, and hosting Muslim speakers to speak about their oftentimes mundane lives can indeed be more effective, and manageable, means of combatting Islamophobia than direct analysis of the latest anti-Muslim vitriol from a high political office.

How Do Students Understand Intersections between Religion and Politics, Anyway?

When I was an undergraduate during the first years of the twenty-first century, e-mail was still relatively new to my life and social media was not yet a word. The verb “google” was not part of my active vocabulary. Most people I knew didn’t own cell phones, and pocket-sized super computers called smartphones would have sounded supercool had I read about them in a science fiction narrative. I would not leave the United States for the first time until I finished my first year of graduate school in 2006—traveling to Morocco and Spain—and it was not until then that I began to appreciate global politics. (Crossing international borders with an American passport allowed me to reflect on nation-states and my own American identity from a new paradigm.)

I share all this to emphasize how ill-equipped I was to understand in depth the kinds of contexts my students encounter in my courses on Islam in 2017. I think that students are hungry to understand the complex social and political nature of the world, but I also think that part of what makes a liberal arts college experience effective is the opportunity to think about stuff without always finding an explicit real-world, capitalistic application. (Sometimes ideas need to percolate, in any case, before they even make sense for real-world application.) I return, then, to the slow and steady approach I mentioned toward the beginning of this essay. We have a chance in the college classroom to complicate the simple narratives students can find with a quick Google search on super computers in their pockets. And complex narratives take time to construct. Dedicating class time to Trump’s latest Tweet can indeed help contribute to building these complex narratives, but I would argue that too much focus on critiquing simplistic narratives could get in the way. Indeed the tortoise comes out on top precisely because the hare buries himself in a series of distractions.

On Building Narratives

In conclusion, I would like to include a brief reflection on student activism and its connection to teaching. As a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, I witnessed some student groups host anti-Muslim ideologues including Dennis Praeger, David Horowitz, and Daniel Pipes. Frequently, I would watch many other student groups respond with formal protests, which I found both heartening and problematic. Indeed, protest is perhaps part of the human spirit; it encapsulates much of what it means to thrive in a democratic society. It’s also an effective catalyst for change as numerous examples from history attest. At the same time, however, I regularly remind myself that part of the difficult intellectual work of teaching and learning involves building narratives, not only challenging visible narratives. Both are necessary, and my course on Sufism helps me, and I hope my students as well, appreciate the significance of this balance, the complementarity between jamal (beauty) and jalal (majesty)—two sides of the same human condition.

*Portions of this essay have previously appeared in the Wabash Center’s blog series “Teaching Islam.”

 

Resources

Green, Todd. 2015. The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Hussain, Amir. 2016. Muslims and the Making of America. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

“Islamophobia is Racism: Resource for Teaching & Learning about anti-Muslim Racism in the United States.” Last accessed May 22, 2017. https://islamophobiaisracism.wordpress.com/.

Jhally, Sut (director). 2006. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Last accessed May 22, 2017. https://vimeo.com/56687715.

Kirschner, Shanna. 2012. “Teaching the Middle East: Pedagogy in a Charged Classroom.” Political Science and Politics 45 (4): 753–758.

“New Books in Islamic Studies.” Last accessed May 22, 2017. http://newbooksnetwork.com/category/religion-faith/islamic-studies/. Many of the interviews for this podcast series include discussions of pedagogy and Islamophobia.

Wabash Center. “Teaching Islam.” A Wabash Center Blog Series. Last accessed May 22, 2017. http://wabashcenter.typepad.com/teaching_islam/.

Wheeler, Brannon, ed. 2003. Teaching Islam. New York: Oxford University Press.


Elliott Bazzano is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Le Moyne College where he teaches courses on Islam and comparative religion, as well as first-year seminars. His research focuses on the interplay of Qur’anic interpretation, polemics, and mysticism as well as identity and pedagogy in religious studies scholarship. Bazzano’s peer-reviewed publications appear in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Religion Compass, and Teaching Theology and Religion. He writes for the Wabash Center blog “Teaching Islam,” and hosts podcasts for New Books in Islamic Studies. In addition to finding inspiration in the mystical percolations of the Sufis, including coffee (pun intended), he finds his deepest wonder and joy in the miracle of his two daughters who offer him limitless possibilities for contemplating the mysteries of the universe and what it means to learn. You can access some of his publications, as well as his CV, at his academia.edu page.